The Great Wall of China is the single most iconic and legendary structure in all of Chinese history and is equally monumental as a stunning testament to the ingenuity and artisanship of the Chinese people. In a certain respect, the Great Wall is a misnomer, as it is actually a series of walls that has never actually been a contiguous single. The 2,000-year-old wall winds its way from the border of North Korea all the way to Lop Nur in the western province of Xinjiang. Snaking for a mind-boggling 8,852 km (5,500 mi) through numerous provinces and principalities, the wall is spectacular, and the most accessible regions sit just on the outskirts of Beijing.Here we will cover eight of the most visited sections in Beijing. Each section has its own unique characteristics, from the rugged and untamed Jiankou route to the convenient but congested Badaling. The more touristy segments are superbly maintained and give the visitor a vivid impression of the ancient presence the wall exhibited two millennia ago. The rougher sections are more alluring to hardy adventure seekers; these often crumbling and overgrown portions provide some of the most breathtaking views on the wall, and their unrestored nature qualifies them as ultra-authentic.
Wall building was nothing new to the Chinese by the time of the Spring and Autumn Period, which ran from the 8th to the 5th centuries BCE. This period, and the subsequent Warring States period, saw the states of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Yan and Zhongshan all construct extensive fortifications to defend their individual borders. The walls were designed to withstand attacks from small arms such as swords and spears, ordered the construction of a new wall to connect the remaining fortifications along the empire's new northern frontier. The hugely cumbersome materials were not easy to transport, and the “ice road” technology of the Forbidden City had not yet been imagined. This meant that local re sources were heavily relied upon, which in turn meant that in mountainous regions much of the wall was stone, while on the plains it was largely limited to rammed earth.
There are no surviving historical records indicating the exact length and course of the Qin Dynasty walls; erosion and wear have claimed most of them over the centuries, and very few sections remain today. The exact human cost of the construction is unknown, but some researchers have estimated that hundreds of thousands of workers died building the Qin wall over the course of ten years.
Heedful of their predecessor’s earnest northern defense, the Han, Sui, and Northern Dynasties all repaired, rebuilt, or extended sections of the Great Wall at no small cost to their coffers or workers’ lives. Besides a short section built by the Jin Dynasty during the 5th century in today's Mongolia, the wall received no more construction until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), some 1,000 years after.
Ironically, the massive wall that was kept up during the Jin Dynasty proved to be a spectacular failure against the might of Genghis Khan’s Mongolia. Never truly being a contiguous wall, the Mongols inevitably identified the breaches, and it was through these gaps that Genghis Khan drove his armies to capture Beijing in 1225 and establish his Yuan Dynasty. The wall would see limited success over the years, with the most notable defensive stand coming at the end of the Ming Dynasty.
The Great Wall proposal was thrown back on the table in the court of the Ming Dynasty during the 14th century. A long and drawn-out conflict with the Manchurian and Mongolian tribes was fatiguing the empire. Successive battles provided no upper hand, so the Ming court proposed the resurrection of a millennium-old strategy to keep the nomadic tribes out: a wall of epic proportions along the northern border of China. Wisely leaving the Mongol control established in the Ordos Desert unchallenged, the wall was constructed along the desert’s southern perimeter.
Technologically contrasting with the earlier Qin fortifications, the Ming ramparts were far more stalwart and elaborate, with bricks and stone being used instead of rammed earth. Estimations of up to 25,000 watchtowers along the Ming wall give stunning testament to the grandiosity of the feat. Mongol raids were never far off, and the Ming emperors devoted heaps of resources to repair and reinforce the walls. Defending their capital of Beijing was a top priority, and it is largely because of the Ming emperors that the Beijing sections have been particularly well strengthened and maintained. In particular, Emperor Qi Jiguang, between 1567 and 1570, repaired and reinforced the wall, faced sections of the ram-earth wall with bricks, and constructed 1,200 watchtowers from Shanhaiguan Pass to Changping to warn of approaching Mongol raiders.
The end of the Ming Dynasty showcased the most adept stand of the Great Wall as a defensive bastion. On their approach to Beijing in 1644, the Manchus met with the Ming army at Shanhaiguan, where the wall connected with the sea in the east. The Manchus, who had already taken all of Liaodong (modern day Liaoning), could not penetrate the heavily reinforced pass and were prevented from entering the Chinese heartland. It was only through the traitorous Ming general Wu Sangui that the gates were opened and the Manchus allowed to overtake the Great Wall in 1644. They quickly seized Beijing and defeated both the rebel-founded Shun Dynasty and the remaining Ming resistance, establishing Qing Dynasty rule over all of China. With the Dynasty’s annexation of Mongolia and, consequentially, a greatly expanded northern border, maintenance of the wall fell as quickly as the need for its protection.
Though the overall military effectiveness of the wall was often little more than mediocre, it did serve quite usefully as an ancient highway. Goods, equipment, and people could be transported very long distances over the rugged mountainous terrain. Traversing such terrain would have proven quite impossible without the wall, which is said to have the accommodation capacity for five galloping horses in certain sections. You can make your own discoveries when you visit one or many of the eight sections of the Beijing Great Wall.
Before You Go
The Great Wall has many areas to visit, and not all sections are the same. The restored sections provide their share of steep walking, but they are well maintained, beautifully crafted and quite safe. Badaling is the most touristy area of the wall, with Mutianyu holding a close second. Simatai, Jinshanling, and Huanghuacheng are partly-restored, and their commercialism tends to fall in the middle. The unrestored sections include Jiankou and Zhuangdaokou, among others.Hiking these can vary from challenging to downright dangerous. For each section we will provide you with an essential items list.
Most of the sections we list can be accessed via public transport, and a few require a taxi for the last leg. Tours are readily available, but not all of them are desirable. Hotel or travel agency tours are not recommended as they tend to be highly commercialized and include unwanted and unnecessary frills and side trips. Hostel tours can be more reliable since they tend to cater to the adventurous Western mind, but they can be hit or miss. Below, we have provided a list of reputable non-hotel tour companies that we recommend, as well as a list of general essentials to bring on your Great Wall excursion. This list is not necessarily all-inclusive, so please check the “Hiking & Info” and “Packing & Additional Options” notes for your chosen section before you depart.
Our recommended tour companies:
Bike Beijing - phone: 133 8140 0738; website: www.bikebeijing.com
Beijing Hikers - phone: 6432 2786; website: www.beijinghikers.com
Bespoke Beijing - phone: 6400 0133; website: www.bespokebeijing.com
Snap Adventures - phone: 400 188 SNAP; website: www.snapadventures.com
Dandelion Hiking - phone: 156 5220 0950; website: www.chinahiking.cn
Beijing Sideways - phone:139 1133 4947; website: www.beijingsideways.com
Sunscreen - There are some places for shade on every section, but count on a lot of wall-walking, which means major sun exposure.
Water - Though touristy sections have water, it’s quite expensive. Don’t fork out the cash when you can bring your own.
Walking shoes - No matter what section you choose, expect some decent walking. Avoidable foot aches will detract from your experience.
Camera - Even if you are heading to Jiankou for a hardcore fitness adventure, you will be kicking yourself when you realize you’d love a picture of the unbelievable views but didn’t pack a camera.